Taking the elm tree back to its roots.

Photo by cleverclevergirl | flickr.com

The elm tree was once iconic in North America, seen lining boulevards and providing urban centers with a natural splendor.  Within past decades the tree has become most publicized in the ecological world for the fungal infection afflicting the population, which is the destructive Dutch elm disease.  Plant agriculture researchers at the University of Guelph are doing their best to turn that trend around.

With the use of in vitro culture technology, Professors Praveen Saxena and Alan Sullivan became the first scientists to clone buds of mature elm trees.  This accomplishment is nothing short of groundbreaking, as it allows the potential for bringing back an endangered native species. 

Dutch elm disease is a pathogen spread by the elm bark beetle, responsible for wiping out over 95 percent of elms in Eastern Canada and the United States.  The premise of the disease is that it interferes with nutrient circulation and water transport within the large trees.   The Guelph scientists were driven to find a cure for the dying breed of trees since only 1 in 100,000 elms are naturally resistant to the infection.

Saxena’s team was searching for new ways to clone and produce resistant elms via “micropropagation” technqiues.  This involved selecting tissue samples from current dutch elm disease survivors around Ontario.  Genetic copies were grown from the shoot tips and dormant buds and nurseries are being constructed with seedlings that have the desired disease-resistant traits. 

The final intent of this project is to aid elm breeding, as well as biotechnology programs worldwide in order to reintroduce other endangered species of economic, social and environmental significance.  The Gosling foundation (who funded the research) was enlightened to see the results presented by the plant scientists at Guelph, outlining their desire to propagate many other rare and endangered species that have been decimated by human impacts in recent decades. 

The field of research Saxena and Sullivan are involved in is essential for maintaining an array of biodiversity in the world around us.

It is urgent and crucial to conserve endangered plant species in Ontario as urban sprawl continues and more development enhances the possibility of degraded natural habitat.